Death & life

Broken-hearted threnody; the crisis in embryo
Guy Rundle

Broken-hearted threnody

We are entering a period of apparent total power for the United States. Its military dominance is all but unassailable, and the recent increases in military spending will make it more so. Its proposed National Missile Defence system will not render it invulnerable, but may give it an enhanced sense of being such. Its dominance of the world economy and the international architecture of finance and trade is of a similar order. The ideology of 'free' trade is imposed on global demand (whether it be for finance or markets) while supply (whether it be of steel or labour) is regulated at will. The business cycle is regularised, or an attempt is made to do so, by the regularising of global consumption, through the spread of media technologies, their carriage of global branding and the shaping and channelling of personal consumption to an unprecedented degree. The culture is subordinated to the economy, and the economy is subordinated to imperial military power.

The process is completed when a whole series of American commentators and opinion formers who would have been described - by themselves and others - as 'liberals', fall in behind the new imperial vision, and confine their criticism to means rather than ends. This is not a matter of personal corruption, though there is plenty of that. It is a collapse of the logic of liberal dissent, of the possibility of imagining a genuine countervailing force that is not totally transformative. The expansion of a global culture industry, and the abolition of the barrier between entertainment and advertising, reshapes the subjects of the world as mirrors of their objects.

The small subclass who work in cultural production develop a distinctive 'meta-ideology' as a result of their social practice and formation. The content of this has some continuity with the 'bohemia' of old, but it is entirely bound within regulated cultural production and it experiences its own powerlessness and marginality through an addiction to ever more layered and self-referentially 'ironic' forms of expression. When there occur real events - such as the Twin Towers attack - that cut through all social strata, the ironic stance collapses back to its real (and in this case, imperial) ground zero.

When people of the 'Global South' attempt to exclude the process from an actual physical zone, often by recourse to reactionary and regressive ideologies, the response shifts from the cultural-economic to the political-military, and a similar process of regularisation occurs.

The current enormous jump in military spending is designed to make possible armaments that are now only science-fictive - robot 'troops' being the most lurid example, routinised use of tactical nuclear weapons the most terrifying. The prescience of Baudrillard's much derided observation that 'the Gulf War did not take place' becomes clear. The encounter between hi-tech disembodied weaponry on one side and actual soldiers and civilians on the other is not 'war' in any hitherto meaningful sense of the term; it is not a contest of human forces. To use the term 'war' for this process obscures a full understanding of what is really occurring. While wars will continue, they will be overshadowed by episodes of what we might call 'subordination' - the encounter between totally hi-tech aggressors and substantially embodied victims. Frustration at this totality drives people to terror tactics, and the increasing numbers resorting to them make their occurrence more likely. The threat or incidence of such terror, to varying degrees, makes attacks on civil liberties possible. Resistance is limited because a sense of citizenship as a dimension of selfhood has been eroded by the extension of 'advertainment' to ever greater regions of inner and outer life.

This assessment seems melancholy, but it is also the most likely picture of the next couple of decades. The forces of opposition that such power produces are manifold but still at an early stage of development. Even if we discount the prospect of the crises of the modern period - economic depressions or revolutions - there are new crisis points which could furnish humanity with a rallying point against power. Large-scale events such as a sudden spike in the effects of global warming could throw global food production into chaos. Leaders and movements could arise in the South such as would bring it to a state of global 'class' consciousness - although it is possible they would call on chauvinist and nationalist sentiments. The cultural problems created by hyperconsumption - which denies universal needs by feeding particular desires - will become a historical force in their own right. Even if none of this eventuates to a degree necessary to challenge the micro and macro-processes of empire, the period is end-stopped by a confrontation between the US and China. This may be a peaceful process, or it may be an apocalyptic one, but it will occur nevertheless. (In its light we may come to understand Islamic fundamentalism as a relatively minor and specific outbreak of a larger North-South contestation).

The crisis in embryo

The new forms of subordination and war are death at its most stark; embryonic stem cell research is presented as the opposite - the production of life as a raw material for scientific research that may save people from the living deaths of Parkinson's, MS, motor neurone disease and many other conditions. Its proponents argue that any opposition to it can only come from a literal religious standpoint, and any attempt to argue for a general moratorium is thereby oppressive. The opposition - substantially but not wholly from religious groups - has by and large argued that possible negative consequences at the level of the social and cultural whole make a universal moratorium or ban on selected practices legitimate. Death and life, they argue, are not so easily separated.

The latter group have their work cut out for them because social transformation or culture death is difficult to point to, while the individual benefits of such procedures can end up on the front page of the newspaper, smiling from their hospital beds.

Yet the limited degree to which the public has taken these arguments on board - largely in the wake of animal cloning - should be cause for guarded optimism, if one remains cognizant of the long-time frame within which such battles may be fought. As human life becomes increasingly abstracted, commodified, manipulable and dehumanised, a wider sense of foreboding spreads. It remains a minority opinion, but it is a level of awareness far beyond any that could have been hoped for at the beginning of IVF or multiple organ transplants - the first practices to make visible the cultural and moral dilemmas that occur when 'life' can be isolated from 'being'.

Doubtless many readers will disagree with the tenor of this note. From a materialist left perspective, biotechnology is simply a further march along the road to human freedom, and social and political control of it determines whether it will be an 'alienated' process or not. True, some of the opposition comes from a religious quarter that is essentially medieval and - at its root - anti-enlightenment and anti-science. But, as numerous writers in Arena publications have argued, developments such as biotechnology bust open the left-right spectrum absolutely, and are uninterpretable within it.

These technical developments prompt society to a process of reflection on the grounded and embodied nature of meaning, existence and ethics. That in turn should prompt us to a wider reflection on our relationship to science and technology, and the manner in which we will develop a relationship to them. Our understanding of the way in which they transform life must be joined to our knowledge of how to use them to transform living.

From these general observations, two particular strategic ones can be made. The first is that it is imperative to affirm that the debate, and continued struggle to foreground debate, embraces more and other than politics as such - if politics be taken as conducting the matters of the polis, the community-state. It is a struggle over onte, being, the conditions for the possibility of politics. Nothing could be more foolish, or more arrogant than the Victorian and NSW Premiers' militant and unreflective approach to such a matter. Yet if one confusedly sees this issue as bounded by the 'political' their conduct falls neatly into the category of the progressive enlightenment, and the long march against ignorance. The second is that discussion of the real and myriad technical problems of these processes can be counterproductive if it takes us away from the determination to foreground what this all means for the human beings we will become.

Guy Rundle is the co-editor of Arena Magazine. This article was first published as the editorial in Arena Magazine, vol. 58, April-May 2002, pp. 2-3. Visit the Arena site and take out a subscription. Image courtesy of Dartmouth College.


Suggested citation
Rundle, Guy, 'Death & life', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4, June 2002.<>